Are April fools resistant to change? A dramatic April Fools hoax marked the 2001 opening of the Copenhagen Metro, Denmark’s new subway. The “joke” was a rail car bursting up through the ground, looking as if one of the cars had broken through the square in front of the town hall. It was actually a retired subway car from the Stockholm subway that had been obliquely cut with the front end placed onto the tiling and loose tiles scattered around the car. The effect created a dramatic April Fool’s hoax.
The origin of April Fool’s Day is uncertain. However, the most commonly accepted explanation originates with Pope Gregory XIII and the calendar that was named after him. The Gregorian calendar is an adaptation of a calendar designed by Italian doctor, astronomer, and philosopher Luigi Lilio (also known as Aloysius Lilius), who died six years before his calendar was officially introduced. The calendar is a solar measurement based on a 365-day common year divided into twelve months of irregular lengths.
The Gregorian calendar is the most widely used in the world. It was introduced by papal bull in October of 1582, but the complete transition took more than two centuries. In 1752 the shift in North America was like the “spring forward” aspect of Daylight Savings Time. When people went to bed on September 2, 1752 they woke up on September 14, and eleven days were lost forever.
The intention of the new calendar was to adjust the date of Easter. The inaccuracy of the preceding calendar of Julius Caesar had caused Easter to slip further from its proximity to the March equinox full moon. Easter is the only Christian holiday that is still lunar. Easter is the first Sunday after the first full moon following the spring equinox. The Julian Calendar did not properly reflect the actual time it takes Earth to circle once around the Sun, known as a tropical year. Although Julius Caesar’s earlier calendar reform of 46 BCE had made January 1st the beginning of the New Year, after the Roman god Janus and the month of January, European countries continued to celebrate New Years on March 25, Lady Day, a feast of the Virgin Mary, until 1752.
Gregory’s papal bull only had authority in Catholic nations, and European Protestants strongly resisted the change on principle because of its ties to the papacy. Two hundred years passed before most places let go of the Julian calendar, and some locations held out even longer. New Year’s Day continued to be celebrated on March 25 in most European towns. In some areas of France, New Year’s celebration was a week-long holiday, ending on April 1, which brings us to April Fool’s Day.
It’s speculated that those who clung to the old dates became the butt of jokes. The April Fools were those who resisted change and held on to the old ways. Hoaxes and jokes became ways of tricking (and ridiculing) those who were thought to foolishly refuse to face the future. Over time April Fool’s practices spread to many countries and is now a tradition in quite a few places.
Calendars are a way of marking time. We “modern and sophisticated” people live in a world of artificial light, and we have lost touch with the seasons and the cycles of the Moon and stars. We have become prisoners of clocks, calendars, and many other devices that have nothing to do with the motions of the Earth and the constantly shifting cycles of light and dark that actually create time.
If we are honest, we might wonder who are the fools? We are tied to artificial timepieces and electronic devices that prevent us from even seeing the night sky. What wisdom have we lost that those who still watch the stars and move in rhythm with the seasons retain. Perhaps the biggest April Fool’s joke of all is that without our clocks, calendars, and cell phones we have no true idea of the passage of time and its significance.
Copyright 2017, Julie Loar. Julie Loar is the multiple award-winning author of six books and dozens of articles. She is an international teacher and scholar of myth and symbolism.